It is common practice to apply an ice pack to a sprained ankle or a sore muscle, and many professional athletes have been reported to use cryotherapy to aid with recovery. However, the benefits of the well-known RICE protocol (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) for injuries and sore muscles have been thoroughly debunked, including by the doctor that originally coined the term four decades ago. While icing an injury does effectively relieve pain, it also constricts blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the cold area. Even though the injury feels better, this impairs the body’s ability to heal, extending the recovery process.
But what happens after the ice is removed? In a recent study, scientists hypothesized that once the area warmed up, there would be a large temporary increase in blood flow, aiding in the healing process. This “rebound” phenomenon has been observed after things like removing a tourniquet or unclamping an artery during surgery, but hadn’t been studied for restrictions due to cold temperatures.
The researchers found that using ice, compression, and elevation therapy on a muscle immediately after exercise led to significantly reduced blood flow as expected, but instead of bouncing back immediately after treatment, the blood flow remained low for an extended period of time. While we already knew that ice impairs muscle recovery even though it’s great for reducing pain, now we can add that the negative effects last longer than previously hypothesized, suggesting that injured athletes should think twice before using ice as pain relief.